Tuesday was one of the most scenic days of the entire walk. After I left the Jandarma Komutanligi (jandarma command post) I spent the day walking a two-lane road hewn into the side of the mountains rising above the Goksu river. The road rolled up and down between 500 feet and 1000 feet above the river, and passed through areas of deciduous forest colored the fall colors of yellow and red, and areas of evergreen forest that made me feel like I was walking through the mountains of the Pacific Northwest near Seattle.
Nihat bey, the commander at the jandarma post, had told me to find and say hello to “Hoca” at the end of the day, so all day long I walked thinking, I can’t just camp anywhere tonight, I’ve got to find Hoca. Whatever I do, I’ve got to find Hoca.
In the early afternoon I stopped off at a tea garden with an irresistable view of the river valley below. I ate patatesli gozleme (a pancake stuffed with boiled and lightly-seasoned potatoes), drank some tea, and had some conversation with Hilmi, the grown son of one of the tea garden’s owners. But I had to find Hoca, and so as comfortable as the tea garden was, I had to get going.
Shortly after I left the tea garden the storm rolled back in, except this time from the opposite direction. Instead of a warm rain coming from the Mediterranean, the storm was blown back in by a wind from the north. The rain was colder than it had been the night before. Someone from the tea garden came driving by a few minutes after the rain started. He told me to get in the car, he would take me wherever I needed to go. I told him, as I’ve told countless people on the walk, that thank you very much for the offer, but no, I’ve got to walk. He finally gave up and disappeared back the way he had come.
Fortunately, the rain only lasted a short while. The clouds and the wind were still there, but the rain had stopped, and I was left a little wet but happy to be walking through such beautiful territory.
About 3pm I reached the village where I was supposed to find “Hoca.” I came up on a section of the road crowded with parked trucks and thought that looked like a good sign. I started asking around, and the second or third person I asked pointed to a nearby restaurant with a sign that said “Hoca’nin Yeri” (Hoca’s Place). I’d find Hoca there, the man said.
I walked into Hoca’s Place and started asking for Hoca (by the way, “hoca” means teacher in Turkish). At the back of the restaurant I met Hoca and told him I had had breakfast with Nihat the jandarma commander, and Nihat had told me to find Hoca and say hello from him.
Hoca smiled and shook my hand and invited me to sit down next to the fire they kept going for the barbecue. I began telling Hoca, and the people sitting nearby, who I was and what I was doing.
Within moments, and without me even asking, someone brought me a plate of barbecued sucuk (sausage), a huge pile of bread, and a salad. I bit into the sucuk. It was the most delicious sucuk I had ever tasted. I asked Hoca about it. He told me they made it there, themselves, with their own mixture of spices. I asked Hoca what they called the sucuk. He told me it was named after him.
After eating I sat around the restaurant with Hoca and a handful of the villagers making small talk. I could barely understand a single word they said. Their accent was very different from the Konya accent, but to me it was equally unintelligible. Sometimes I could barely even identify their words as Turkish.
Hoca got up every few minutes to greet customers as they came into the restaurant. He was like the mayor of the town, greeting people like they were long-lost friends, even though he had probably last seen them less than 24 hours before.
As darkness fell I asked Hoca if I could camp somewhere in the area. I told him I had everything I needed in my backpack — tent, sleeping bag, everything. He said of course, you can camp anywhere you like. I asked if I could camp out on the restaurant’s balcony, which was closed off for the winter. I thought the balcony would be a great place to camp, especially since it was right above the Degirmen creek (Degirmendere, for which the village was named), and I could fall asleep to the sounds of running water. Hoca said sure, of course, no problem.
A few minutes later though, one of the earlier patrons in the restaurant, Ali, a man in his early 30s, came back, sat down next to me, and said come with me, you can sleep at my place tonight. I jumped at the offer, especially since I had camped outside in rainy weather the two nights before, and was in fact still a little wet from the afternoon’s rain.
Ali and I left the restaurant and walked the short distance, maybe just 100 meters, to his apartment. Inside the apartment I changed into dry clothes while Ali built a fire in the TV room. The TV room was small, and by the time I finished changing clothes the fire had turned it a nice toasty warm.
I took a seat amongst some pillows on the floor next to the fire. Ali spread out on the couch. He offered me some baklava, and we settled in to watch “Evlen Benimle” (Marry Me), a popular matchmaking show on television.
At one point some curious neighbor kids came over to meet (read: play with) the foreign visitor. They were Enes, a boy aged about 5, and his sister Elif, a girl aged about 2. Ali left to take care of some business elsewhere, and I played “horsey” with Enes and Elif. I was surprised that after a full day of walking I still had the energy to let a couple kids climb around on me simultaneously, but I dug deep and found it somewhere. I had no problem with Elif, who was about as light as a feather, but when Enes would decide that the back of my head made a great saddle, I had a hard time supporting his weight with my neck muscles. I didn’t complain when Ali returned and told the kids to settle down.
After the kids’ mom came to collect them, Ali and I watched the second half of Evlen Benimle. We drank some cinnamon and ginger tea that Ali had been warming next to the fire. When Evlen Benimle was over Ali and I went back to Hoca’s restaurant, and to the next door kahvehanesi (coffee house), for some tea and village conversation before bed.
While at Hoca’s restaurant I asked Hoca if he had any children. He has two, a daughter, aged 19, and a son, aged 16. Both live in Silifke. I asked Hoca what his son’s favorite subject was in school. Hoca laughed and said girls, and sports. I told him those are the favorite subjects of just about every 16-year old boy. He laughed and said he just wanted to see his son go to college. Everything changes if you go to college, Hoca said. Life is different. Work is different. Everything is different.
That night I slept incredibly well, spread out on a nice comfortable couch, the fire still going, and some drama show on TV. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was, being that a mere 24 hours earlier I had been camping out on the side of the road, hiding from one of the most aggressive thunderstorms I had seen in a long time. I find it so easy to take a warm bed and a roof over my head at night for granted, and at some point I probably will again, but for now at least I recognize how there is almost no price that can be put on small creature comforts like that.
In the morning Ali and I both woke up around 6:30am. We got up, walked down the street to Hoca’s restaurant for breakfast, found it not open yet, and hung out at the kahvehanesi a while instead. When Hoca finally arrived we stepped into his restaurant for breakfast. It turns out breakfast was not a regular meal served publicly to restaurant patrons — it was just Hoca, Ali, me, and a young man 21 years old named Sahin, the village’s butcher.
While Hoca was away from the table I asked Sahin how Hoca had come to be called Hoca, since I have never met someone whose real name is Hoca (Hoca is just a nickname given to some people). Sahin told me that at one point Hoca had been an imam. With that piece of information, something about Hoca fell into place for me. He had a way of looking at me that made me squirm a bit — a calm, self-assured gaze that said, “I’m looking into you, but I don’t need anything from you, and you don’t need to do anything that you’re not doing right now.”
As soon as Sahin said that, I remembered an imam I met back in Horsunlu a couple months ago. He had looked at me with a very similar gaze, and that too had made me squirm. Maybe they teach you how to look at people that way in imam school or something.
Breakfast over, I said my goodbyes and thank yous, took a self-portrait photo of the four of us, and began my day’s walk.
At no point did anyone ask for, nor would they have accepted, any money in return for the delicious dinner, or the dozens of cups of tea, or the breakfast, or the warm bed. I was simply the village’s guest for the night. For eighteen hours it was their mission in life to see that I was taken care of, and after almost a week camping by the side of the road, getting rained on, and eating food wherever and whenever it appeared, I drank that in like a man just in from crawling through the desert would drink in a tall glass of water.